Casper 721, Crash site

Casper 721 ...

... is Down

by Cliff White
(© 1998)

 

Casper Flight Platoon HHC 173rd Abn. Brigade Sep. - 1968


December 11, 1968 began early with a flight from LZ English to LZ Uplift where we were to fly Command and Control for the Battalion Commander 1/503, 173rd ABN. CW2 Walton Henderson (Sugar Bear) was the aircraft Commander and myself, 1st Lt. Clifford White, with only three months in country was flying PP. ("PP" was used for the term Peter Pilot. In the Army there was no designation as co-pilot. Pilots logged time as either Aircraft Commander or the right seat as Pilot. Both being 1st pilot time. In most units rank had no claim on Aircraft Commander that was earned and usually only after at least 2 plus months in country flying right seat, and after the approval of the other AC's and the company commander) Neither one of us were supposed to be flying this mission, however Walt lost a coin toss, and I wanted more stick time than I had been getting.
      Walt was one of those AC's that was good to fly with, he would give you all the stick time he could, and try to teach you something in the process. The crew chief was SP4 Ned Costa and the door gunner was John Steen, and Casper 67-17721 was a new ship with a little over 200 hours. We were members of Casper flight platoon HHC 173rd Abn. Brigade Sep.
      At the briefing we received specific flight routes and altitudes to avoid artillery firing from English, An Khe, LZ Uplift, and LZ Fox. Elements of the 1/503rd were to be inserted by the 61st AHC about 20K Northeast of An Khe Pass at the north end of "Happy Valley." This area was known to be an enemy strong hold. At the briefing no one had said any thing about weapons. Since Walt had not flown in the area for the preceding three months, he asked if there was any 51's or heavier anti air craft in the area. We were advised that there were no heavy weapons in this area, and that was the reason the Battalion was being lifted into this end of the valley. We were shot down later that morning, and Walt was trapped for over seven hours before being freed. He spent 2 and 1/2 years in the hospital prior to returning to flight status. I spent 3 months at Camp Zama in Japan returning to active duty with the 29th Infantry in Hawaii, and to Vietnam in 1971 with the 61st AHC. The crew chief and the door gunner returned to Casper after a month at the Evac. hospital in Qui Nhon.
      For 30 years some pieces of what happened that day have been unclear to both Walt and myself. Because of the seriousness of the injuries neither of us were able to be debriefed or talk with each other. We finally found one other at the 1998 Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (VHPA) reunion in Fort Worth. Walt had been to the reunion several times prior, but this was my first. I did not know there were reunions happening and only found out on the Internet. We are trying to locate our crew and the others who were there to help us. We are still looking for the door gunner to complete the crew. What follows is from what both of us are able to remember, and from what others that were there have told us.

 

Casper Flight 721 is Down!

December 11, 1968,

our first mission was to lift a 4.2 mortar crew to a mountain top over looking the Area of Operation (AO). This went without any problems. The only interesting point was that on the first lift while on short final to the top of a mountain that looked like no man had ever been there the grass parted and the LZ was leveled with sandbags and a large 1st Cav. patch painted in the middle. We were surprised and disappointed that we weren't first.
      After the mortar crew was in place we returned to LZ Uplift, refueled and picked up the Battalion Commander 1/503, Artillery Forward Observer (FO), radio operator and five PRC 25 radios. At 10 hundred hours we were back in the AO. The Colonel asked us to over fly the LZ so they could get a look. The low cloud cover and flight restrictions, due to the different gun target lines, kept us below 1500 feet, which was causing Walt a great deal of concern. On the first pass the LZ was on the Colonel's side and he wanted a second pass so the FO could see the LZ. On the second pass I was flying and Walt was turned talking to the Colonel trying to convince him our repeated action was not the best plan, and that a third pass the Colonel wanted to make was not going to happen. Walt had been varying our flight path and altitude as much as much as possible to make it difficult for any NVA gunners who might be tracking us. As we crossed the LZ the second time the mortar crew advised the FO they were ready to fire. Walt turned to take the aircraft, all discussion was over, and we had to get clear.
      During the time Walt was talking to the Colonel, and I was looking down at the LZ, neither of us was looking forward and never saw the initial shell burst. As Walt turned to take the controls, and I looked up from tracking the LZ, we both saw the long smoke immediately at our twelve o'clock and slightly higher. From our prospective it looked like a large bird with his wings outstretched riding the updraft, about the size of the turkey vultures we saw at flight training in Texas (At the reunion in Fort Worth Walt said that at that moment he was real upset at me for flying us into the bird's flight path). Walt took the controls and started an evasive maneuver down and to the left.
      I remember watching what we still thought was a large bird as we went under it, feeling like crap for making a FNG mistake, and putting us in jeopardy. Not a second later there was a series of loud bangs, the Huey acted like a truck with no springs bucking over several speed bumps at high speed. We began flying out of trim with the nose about ten degrees to the right and the helicopter rolled about fifteen to twenty degrees to the left. At this point a lot happened at the same time. The FO was yelling cease-fire; so I shut off the FM radio and his added noise. We already knew the obvious but the crew chief yelled in the intercom that we had lost the tail rotor.
      Walt yelled we were going in and he needed the coordinates, I searched the map but was too excited to quickly find our exact location. In the same moment, Walt told me to get on the controls with him. He then put out the first May Day call that we had a bird strike and Casper 721 was going down. I said something I had remembered from one of my flight instructors, ." . . as long as we were still flying, try to keep it flying." More a prayer than anything of substance.
      There was a Special Forces base about 10k to our Southwest and Walt said he was going to try to make it there, it was down slope all the way. The Huey was so out of trim that we had to look through the green house overhead (like a car's sunroof) to see where we were going. A Huey is real hard to fly when she wants to roll over. Walt remembers me reading the instruments to him, repeating the air speed; we had to stay above 70 Knots! Walt was trying to nurse the aircraft through a turn that would head us back down the valley and down to the tree tops. All this happened in seconds, but it seemed like minutes.
      Casper 721 - Nose Down Close up As we passed through 1000 feet Walt remembers a bright flash but no noise, I never saw the flash and only remember a loud explosion. Before the sound of the explosion had gone the Huey began a violent spin. I could not discern the sky from the ground, and don't know how many times we went around. I remember both of us rolling the throttle off so hard it broke the idle stop switch. With the torque of the engine gone we came out of the spin nose down.
      Walt began a series of May Day calls, as both of us were going through shut down, fuel and battery. Walt was looking for the best place in the trees to crash, and planning a controlled auto rotation (no power). We started the very rapid descent to tree top level. The mountains were behind us and our auto rotation glide was down slope, and away from the mountain. Both of us were on the controls and I was following every move Walt made---the Huey was not responding, and there was little if any cyclic control.
      The loud noise had been a round exploding and taking out our controls; the bright flash was a AA flak round exploding somewhere to our left front ... almost close enough to be the one you don't hear is the one that gets you. There had never been a large bird. We tried full aft cyclic and no flair, twice, and still no flair. We pulled all the collective there was without response. Airspeed and rate-of-descent when we hit the trees was 70 knots, and 700 feet/m. We ran out of air before reaching the valley floor, and the last thing I remember was hitting the top of a large dead tree head on.

      A Casper ship, piloted by CWO Larry Kahila was setting on the Crap Table at LZ English waiting for a Colonel and some Red Cross ("Donut Dollies") ladies and heard the 1st May Day call. Larry had an Artillery Lt. and a Major already on board waiting for the Colonel and the "Donut Dollies." Larry ordered the ship ready to respond to the May Day, but the Major refused to get out of the Huey, insisting it was the Colonel's helicopter. Obviously he did not understand the urgency of the situation and possibly did not hear Larry when he told him there was an aircraft down, and to get out. In the excitement of the moment Larry's crew chief grabbed the Major and tossed him out of the Huey into the arms of the Colonel, just as their Huey came to a hover and departed to join the recovery effort.
      When I came to after the crash, I could hear our Huey's engine winding down, and reached for the fuel switch only to find some grass and dirt, but the instruments---everything was gone. The nose from in front of the pilot's seats to the green house was gone, and there was a strong smell of fuel. The Huey was standing on its nose on a very steep slope. I was down slope and Walt was up slope.
      The jungle can be a quiet place, and the silence now was deafening. Fuel was running down my back and the fear of fire suddenly motivated me to crawl free of the debris. Walt was pinned against the ground with the ship braced on his back. If it shifted again he could be crushed. John Steen, the door gunner, was pinned-in his seat by a 6" diameter tree branch pressing against his "chicken plate" Walt had to order him to wear that morning. SP4 Ned Costa, the crew chief, had freed himself and between the two of us we got John out.
      The door gunner didn't appear to have any other injuries than a sore chest, but later we found John had been hit and wounded several times and had other crash injuries. Ned said he thought he had a broken leg and the carbon steel core of a armored piercing round in his arm, which he took out---my first indication that we had taken fire.
      There was a real danger of fire in the Huey any second, so I crawled back in looking for Walt---there was not a lot of room. The green house was caved in to the top of the seats, the transmission had broken loose and had come forward. The toolbox, a case of "C's", and the Colonel's radios were on top of the back of Walt's seat. After frantically clearing the tangled mess, searching for him, I heard Walt say to get the ---- off my back!
      I could only see part of his face, and wiped dirt and grass from his mouth. There was nothing I could do to free him quickly. I tried to use the little 12" cutting tool with rings on each end, which was worthless against metal. Ned joined me but the both of us could not move the seat.
      I took a quick inventory of our injuries: The Colonel was trapped with his leg under the left side of the Huey, his shoulder was dislocated, he was drenched in fuel. His injuries and agony prevented anyone from approaching him. The radio operator was still unconscious with serious face and head injuries. I had found the Artillery Lt. about 25 feet from the crash site wrapped in branches with only his eyes visible, however, he was conscious. It appeared that he had been ejected from the Huey prior to it coming through the trees. My left knee was severely damaged, and my right leg had several cuts and holes. Everyone was alive.
      I couldn't do anything more to help the injured and began to look for weapons, the SOI and the operations Map. I think they taught this either at Infantry Basic or Flight School, however all I can remember is I felt I had to do something. The NVA were all around us and we needed a defense. No doubt they were searching for us.
      The crew chief had pulled the pins and kicked his M-60 and ammo over prior to hitting the trees. I remember being really upset at him for getting rid of the M-60. But when I talked to Ned later he explained this was what he had been taught at school. In hindsight, the mount and the M-60 would of pinned him in the ship and probably killed him.
      The door gunner's M-60 and M-16' were broken. I could not get to the Colonel's Car-15, he still wasn't letting anyone near him. That left a couple of 45's, and an M-16. The SOI and survival radio was buried under Walt in the pocket of his "chicken plate" and the map was next to the Colonel. I recovered the map but before burying it I had a good quick look at it. There were several "hot spots" marked on the map that were heavy gun emplacements---the ones that we were told weren't there. Later it was confirmed we had crashed in the middle of an NVA Regiment. With a 37 mm and three 51 emplacements set up in a triangle they had to be protecting something big. We later found out it was a Division size hospital dug into the mountains (It was still there in 1971 when I returned to the same AO).
      I tried to find a radio that would work. All the Colonel's PRC 25s were destroyed, except one and only its headset was working. The frequency was set to the mortar crew, and as I listened I could only hear one side of the conversation, so I don't know whom they were talking to, but they were telling them there were no survivors. I wanted to shout that we were alive!
      We carried a case of smoke and I passed a smoke to each of the crew and told them to throw a smoke in different directions as far from out helicopter as possible so as not to ignite the fuel. We threw the smokes at the same time hoping the four-duce crew would know more than one person was alive.
      We proceeded to set up what security we could. Ned said there were rounds being fired at us so he had us huddle next to a large tree. Perhaps the NVA were firing blindly hoping to get us to reveal our position with return fire. I don't remember how much time passed, or much else. Ned said the smoke hung in the trees like a trapped fog, and he heard rocket fire and AK-47's.
      Meanwhile, the Artillery Lt., a friend of Walt's, had stayed on board Larry's Huey. Larry knew the mission and the general area where we were down. He flew into the valley from the West expecting to find us on the lower valley floor.
      A mortar crew on the mountain had watched as we went in, and made their own radio calls for assistance. They had reported that we went in spinning vertical (tail up and nose down), and hit the canopy of trees cart wheeling over the top till we slowed down enough to rip through the heavy branches.
      The Casper ship piloted by CW2 Larry Kahila was in fact the first to find us and began hovering over the canopy above the jungle floor. Casper found our crash site by parts of the rotor blades on top of the tree canopy. We were on the North side of the valley on a 60 degree slope in 150 foot tall trees.
      As Larry hovered over the crash site, the Artillery Lt. said he saw three survivors. Larry couldn't see any way to get to us, plus the longer he hovered the more hits he was taking. One of the NVA 51's was above him on a hill and shooting down through his rotor blades. Others were shooting from across the valley. They were also receiving small arms fire from beneath and not far from where the crash site was.
      Casper started drawing fire from the jungle floor, and from the same positions that had hit us. Their chopper was taking too many hits to stay on scene much longer. When Larry felt the pedals go stiff he had to either leave or join us. He radioed LZ Uplift and told them there were survivors seen moving around, and the recovery operation was now a rescue operation. With problems of his own he had no choice but to depart immediately.
      You know your buddies are trying to get to you, but there is an unspoken fear they won't make it in time. We had gone from the noise of a crashing Huey through jungle canopies to near total silence in a few seconds. Then to the bark of a radio we feared was announcing our location to the world ... and now the growing chatter of enemy firearms and AA at Hueys circling overhead. What else could happen?
      I was suddenly surprised by a Ghostrider chopper hovering at tree top level seemingly trying to find a way down to us. There was an old bomb crater about 50 feet down slope from our crash site that had cut a well hole through the forest, but was quickly being reclaimed by the jungle. The Ghostrider began descending through the new growth cutting its way through tree limbs and vines with its rotor blades! You can't imagine the racket of a rotating blade cracking home runs through vines and canopy limbs unless you are beneath it, while trying not to get speared by flying shards, splinters and limbs.
      I still clutched the one-way radio and knew the importance to tell someone above that we needed equipment to free Walt. I told the door gunner to get in the Huey. He was beginning to feel his wounds and said he couldn't make it. The Crew chief was in bad shape and didn't think he could make it either.
      The Huey seemed to be hovering forever, descending slowly constantly adding to the shrapnel of cut branches. They must of thought we were nuts as none of us were moving toward their ship.
      The rescue Huey could not get down through the limbs to land. They had descended near the bomb crater and no further. Their crew chief began waving for us to come to their position. He gestured toward a broken limb laying across the bomb crater, wanting us to use it as a plank to get in. With what appeared to be no other choice I went, knowing I could tell them first hand about rescue equipment needed for Walt. I crawled out on the tree that laid across the crater. I could not hear anymore firing due to the Huey's engines.
      The crew chief hooked his seat belts together making a rope and dangled it so I could climb up to the skids. As I reached the skids, Ned joined me. The crew chief told me the hovering Huey was taking small arms hits the whole time they were hovering and waiting for us. The Ghostrider held his position as if he had all the time in the world. The AC of that ship was an CW2 Don Wittke, with the 189th Ghost riders, and the ship's tail number was 71.
      By now gun ships from the Avengers were in a frenzy above trying to search out targets. The Colonel, Walt, and John were still at the wreckage as we began lifting up through the well of darkness toward blue sky. I told the AC we needed cutting tools and a fireman to get the pilot out. He made the radio call as we headed to Phu Cat, starting the Air Force response.
      The Major told me he had been crossing An Khe Pass and, heard our May Day, knew the area, so came to see if he could be of some help. He had heard a May Day call about a bird strike, I am sure the green birds of flak and tracers he ran into really surprised him. Strikes from 51's had hit his ship on its way in and out from the rescue.
      The 61st slicks and guns were 10 minutes behind us with the first lift, and were able to get troops on the ground to provide security, and get seriously wounded John and the Colonel out. Walt would have to wait for heavier rescue equipment.
      Some time during the rescue operation "Red Baron" took over the Command and Control of the rescue operation. Casper operations, hearing one of their ships was down and that a pilot was trapped, sent an additional ship with the Flight Surgeon, himself, and another crew chief to the crash site. They could not find a place to land near the crash site so the pilot dropped them off in a bamboo thicket at the bottom of the hill leaving the three of them to find their way up the slope. They used a visible trail, and when stopping to rest could hear all sorts of movement in the jungle.
      At the crash site the medical team found the 173rd had already secured the crash site and everyone except AC CW2 Walt Henderson had been evacuated. They tried to get him free, but did not have the right equipment. The doctor gave Walt shots of Morphine, but could not get any closer to his wounds to help.
      It was getting dark and the flight surgeon said they couldn't stay and to get Walt out they were going to amputate his legs. Fortunately, an Air Force recovery Sergeant had the required cutting tools and went to work freeing Walt. In a matter of minutes they had him in a stretcher. Walt and the others were lifted into the Pedro and flown directly to Qui Nhon.

Since the rescue, we have tried to find out as much information as possible. We were told that it was strongly recommended to the flight surgeon at the crash site, by Gen. Allen commanding 173rd ABN, that he should not come in after Walt. The flight surgeon not only knew and was a friend to all the pilots and crews, but had the integrity to stand by his own decision to do what at the time he knew had to be done, before the Air Force recovery Sergeant arrived.

Stars & Stripes had an article on their front page saying the Air Force was calling this the largest air rescue operation of the war (Before Bat 21). According to the Air Force three Pedro helicopters rigged for rescue of down crews were dispatched from Phu Cat air base. They were turned back by heavy antiaircraft fire, with two Pedros' being damaged and returning to Phu Cat. F-100's were sent out from Phu Cat, and along with Army gun ships suppressed the fire so the Pedros' were able to get to the downed crew.

The Air Force Tech. Specialist who repelled in with cutting tools designed to cut out trapped aircrew, was credited by Stars & Stripes for freeing Walt. My E-mail communication with the Tech. Specialist from Casper, who came in to help, confirms everything the paper said about the Air Force Sergeant. I also found out from Larry Kahila that the pilot from the first Pedro that was shot up and had to return to Phu Cat, and also flew the third Pedro that finally was able to reach the crash site.

We don't know if this was the largest air rescue, because there were many other rescue efforts by aircrews from all branches to get their downed crews out. We do know there was a great deal of effort and commitment by everyone in getting us all out, and the crew of 721 would like to find and thank all those involved.

Our search continues so if anyone knows the whereabouts of our door gunner John Steen, the pilots and crew from the Pedros, from the Ghostriders and Avengers, the Air Force fireman Robert Rager, the Flight Surgeon from the 173rd, Bill Dyer, or the crew chief that came in with the Flight Surgeon, let us know. We would even like to talk with the Battalion Commander 1/503rd, there still are some questions we would like answers to.

It wasn't till this year when Walt and I met, that he found out about an investigation by the 173rd looking to fault Walt. The investigation at the time believed Walt had flown into our own artillery. The rounds and shrapnel in the ship and crew members stopped any further efforts in that direction. The cease-fire orders from the FO had stopped any artillery action and no friendly rounds were ever fired.

Clifford E. White, Class 68-12
Walton A. Henderson (Sugar Bear) Class 68-501

 
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